Kurt Smith · Friday April 25, 2008
If NASCAR is serious about putting racing success back in the hands of the driver, a position with which I agree and which was repeated frequently in their marketing of the new car, maybe they can consider removing Talladega from the schedule. Either that, or they need to remove the restrictor plate from the car.
Especially in recent years, it seems as though at no other track does the car setup mean so much and the driver mean so little. The usual suspects still tend to run at the front…Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart…but that also seems to be more of a function of their respective teams’ mastery of the aero package required to pass or get to the front there.
In the last 13 Talladega races, there have been just five winners from only three teams. Only one of those winners, Dale Jarrett in 2005, drove for someone other than DEI or Hendrick Motorsports. That was also the only win by a car that did not have a bowtie on the front. Nine…that’s right, nine…of the last 13 races have been won by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Jeff Gordon.
From October 2001 through October of 2004, DEI won five out of six races. From April 2004 through October of 2007, Hendrick Motorsports won six out of eight races. Memo to NASCAR: Your goal of “parity” isn’t working here.
This is actually surprising, because one would think that with all of the cars going the same speed in a big pack, there would be a different winner every race. Often the winner does happen to be a car that is in the right place at the right time. But it’s actually just the opposite—one team gains that slight aerodynamic edge, an edge that has nothing whatsoever to do with driver ability—and they win them all. If you remember when DEI was dominant at Talladega, it seemed as though the No. 8 and No. 15 cars were often running up at the front, and if they weren’t, you knew they would be before long.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has won at Bristol, Texas, Phoenix, and Richmond among other places, so far be it for me to call him a one trick pony, but seven of his 17 wins with DEI—nearly half of them—came at plate tracks. So either the draft is Junior’s specialty, or DEI didn’t have the setup mastered at most of the other tracks.
Junior left DEI because their equipment wasn’t up to snuff, which would answer that question.
Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers are better examples of why the aero package determines the winner at plate races. Waltrip has a win at Talladega and three wins at Daytona, all with DEI. He has zero points wins everywhere else in over 20 years of racing in Cup. Since his departure from DEI and driving for Bill Davis and his own team, Waltrip has not dented the Top 15 at a plate track, his highest finish being an 18th at Daytona.
Brian Vickers won the fall Talladega race in 2006 (partly through inadvertently wrecking the two cars in front of him while he was running third…cars that were owned by DEI and Hendrick), and he also finished third in the Spring race. Those were two of five Top 5s he had that year. In the Red Bull Toyota last year, Vickers failed to qualify in the Spring and crashed for a 39th place finish in the Fall.
If that’s not convincing enough, you could also look at Yates Racing of late. Northern Tool + Equipment was smart to sponsor Travis Kvapil starting this weekend—Talladega is one of few places where Yates has run well these days.
Dale Jarrett’s 2005 win was his only win that year. His only other Top 5s came at Bristol, Sears Point, and (you guessed it) Daytona. His average finish that year at plate tracks was 7.5; at non-plate tracks, it was 19.6.
David Gilliland’s 2007 season is even more eye opening. His average finish at plate tracks was 12.5, and that’s including a 27th at Talladega in the fall. At non-plate tracks, it was 29.2. Now there’s someone I’ll bet you don’t hear complaining about restrictor plates too often.
Is the draft David Gilliland’s area of expertise? Or Michael Waltrip’s? Or Brian Vickers’? Do they have a better handle on it than drivers like Rusty Wallace or Matt Kenseth, two drivers that have won Cup titles but have never won at Talladega? To answer yes to that would be to say that a driver excels at Talladega by executing in the draft, rather than by having a car with a better aerodynamic setup than the others. That Waltrip and Vickers just happen to do that better than Wallace or Kenseth would be one strange coincidence. As Jack McCoy from Law & Order often says: “Juries don’t like coincidences.”
I don’t recall ever seeing a driver getting booted out of his ride at Talladega to be replaced by a “plate race specialist”. That occurs with second-tier teams regularly at road courses, and those teams sometimes do fairly well running the likes of Ron Fellows, Scott Pruett, or Boris Said in the car.
That full-time drivers are routinely replaced for road courses and not for Talladega, at the very least, suggests that road course racing is a specialized skill and plate racing is not. Perhaps Talladega should be replaced with a road course or two. That may sound unpalatable to many fans, but if the goal is to make it more about the driver and less about the car, and if the plates are absolutely, positively, never ever ever coming off at Talladega, then that could be a logical conclusion.
The debate about restrictor plates has gone on since they were introduced, even as they have become entrenched as a part of the sport. Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace and many others have said the plates are necessary; Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, and many others including the Official Columnist of NASCAR believe there must be a better alternative.
There are fans that prefer this kind of racing, but I don’t know if they are in the majority. Few NASCAR folks that I know personally like plate races. Talladega does sell out, but one could make the case that that is because it is in Alabama, and one of the most successful drivers there is the son of a legend and one of the few Southerners left in a sport that used to be dominated by them. But who knows. Would Fontana sell out with restrictor plates? I hope we never find out.
Besides causing big multi-car pileups and the occasional horrific crash, and besides causing drivers to be frequently dealt a costly DNF through no fault of their own, restrictor plates make it far more about the aero than the driver, and the results of the last six and a half years have made this very evident at Talladega.
Something is wrong here. When the driver really means very little and the aero package is everything, why is the driver the one getting paid so much money?
Kurt’s Restricted Shorts
- Tony Stewart leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to join with Haas/CNC? Did I just write that? Wow. That’s sort of like Paul McCartney leaving the Beatles to join the Strawberry Alarm Clock.
- Am I only one who thinks that had the Mexico City race been held in the U.S., that that track would not see another race until a LOT of things improved? There were two very long red flag periods because of inadequate walls and inadequate staffing for track cleanup; the yellow flag periods were beyond ridiculous in length (how can we run a quarter of the race under caution at a road course?); and ESPN lost the feed for a noticeable period of time because they lost power! On a perfectly sunny day! If all of this occurred at a track anywhere in the United States, racing fans would be demanding to know why NASCAR continues to hold races at a clearly third-rate facility. But no one is surprised, because we know why NASCAR is racing there. Anything to get away from that redneck image.
- I hope this race is a bit more exciting that last year’s Talladega SPoT debut…that was an utter snoozefest for 490 miles even if the finish was exciting. Jeff Gordon wasn’t the only one yawning. What if everyone gets the idea to hang back for the first 450 miles of the race? Who is going to run in the front? Jon Wood?
- I’m very glad to see both Yates Racing and Travis Kvapil score sponsorship for the 28 car, even if Kvapil did cost me a lot of fantasy league money with his mediocre Penske run in 2005. Here’s hoping the Northern Tool + Equipment No. 28 has a good race this weekend. And be sure to support NT&E for helping out a struggling team.
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